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Groundwater fed by area precipitation sustains the Basinís environment 

by Ty Beaver, Herald and News 5/25/10

     Runoff from rain and snow melt is important to the Klamath Basin, but itís the water below the ground that keeps the regionís rivers flowing year long, says a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.


   Though all water in the Basin originates as snow melt and rain, Marshall Gannett said, the groundwater resource fed by that precipitation is a key link in the regionís hydrology. When weeks go by without rain, that groundwater sustains the environment and ensures irrigators have some water into early fall.


   ďIt does mean that late in the season those flows are going to be there,Ē Gannett said.  


   Historic lows


   Klamath Project irrigators this year will receive only a third of their usual irrigation water, and some wonít receive any. Lower-than-average precipitation has contributed to historic lows in Upper Klamath Lake, the Projectís chief water source.


   Farmers and ranchers are idling land or planting on rented land elsewhere that has a well for irrigation. Others have applied for groundwater permits that allow them to pump that water for irrigation.     


  The bulk of the Basinís water originates on the eastern flanks of the Cascades because they receive the most snow of the mountains in the region.


   Crater Lakeís slopes receive more than 65 inches of precipitation on average each year, while Klamath Falls receives about 13. Nearly three quarters of the precipitation that falls in the mountains comes from November through March as rain and snow, according to a USGS report coauthored by Gannett.  


   Volcanic soil


   The regionís volcanic, porous soil also is crucial to this system. It allows all that water to easily seep into the ground and make it to aquifers beneath the ground.


   Gannett said the three primary sources of inflow to Upper Klamath Lake ó the Wood, Williamson and Sprague rivers ó are heavily dependent upon that groundwater resource.


   The Wood River receives the bulk of its water from springs on the eastern edge of its river valley, while spring-fed Spring Creek is a major source for the lower Williamson River.


   That doesnít mean that direct snow melt and rain runoff donít contribute to river flows. Gannett said it makes sense that inflows to the lake are below average this year, as precipitation was below average during the winter.


   River flows


   But the river flows should be fairly close to average during the summer, when all snow melt is gone because the region has had wet winters in the last few years that fed into the groundwater system.  


   ďTheyíre as high now as weíve seen in the 1980s,Ē Gannett said of the flows coming from Spring Creek.


   That groundwater resource has its limits, though.


   During the 2001 water crisis, numerous irrigators below the lake dug wells to bring water to their fields when they didnít get water from the lake, said Doug Woodcock, manager of the groundwater section for the Oregon Water Resources Department.  


   The result was a steep drop in how close groundwater was to the surface in the areas around the Klamath Reclamation Project. Woodcock said the water level in the aquifer in that part of the Basin dropped 15 to 20 feet in some places, requiring some people who already had wells to deepen them.


   A report Gannett helped write on the regionís groundwater indicates that groundwater pumping has increased by 50 percent since 2001.  


   Spring-fed sources


   Woodcock said that while the groundwater in that part of the region isnít responsible for the water flowing into Upper Klamath Lake, it still provides water to spring-fed water sources, such as Big Springs near Bonanza.


   Groundwater users in that area already have conditions on their permits to keep the Lost River, which has bacteria in it that could contaminate the otherwise clean springs, from flowing into the spring source.


   ďItís a very real issue, and we do keep an eye on it,Ē he said.  

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              Page Updated: Sunday September 19, 2010 01:42 PM  Pacific

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